Telluride Film Festival Report – Attending Film Festivals in a Time of Pandemic

I wanted to reflect on the changes that are affecting those of us who have gotten used to attending film festivals in the past and are now faced with trying to do so again during a pandemic.
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Things have changed considerably in the film festival arena. But although some things may be drastically different, some familiar things may be reminiscent of their former natures even now. And just what changes we face are constantly in flux. Allowing the flexibility to go with the flow and reminding us to be aware of our surroundings and affects on others is a good thing, whether during a pandemic or not.

I have arrived a few days early in the quaint mountain town of Telluride to attend the 48th Telluride Film Festival. Although I have been attending this wonderful film fest nearly every year for well over two decades now, whether this year’s festivities were going to happen was not at all a sure thing. Luckily, the stars have aligned so far (both figuratively and literally, depending on your definition of star,) and the SHOW, as it is known, is a go.

Attending Film Festivals in the time of Pandemic

The author awaits the beginning of the 2021 Telluride Film Festival

The plan is to send in a barrage of reports of one sort or another over the course of the five days of the fest to give reviews, impressions and insights as they happen. Hang on tight for the ride because, with the secrecy kept about what films and filmmakers are going to be here, even I don’t have any idea what I’ll be writing about over the coming days. Exciting for you, nerve-wracking for me, and fun for all, hopefully.

But before the chaos starts, I wanted to take a step back and reflect on the changes that are affecting those of us who have gotten used to attending film festivals in the past and are now faced with trying to do so again during a pandemic. As with the rest of our interactions with the world, things have changed considerably in the film festival arena. But although some things may be drastically different, some familiar things may be reminiscent of their former natures even now. And just what changes we face are constantly in flux. Allowing the flexibility to go with the flow and reminding us to be aware of our surroundings and affects on others is a good thing, whether during a pandemic or not.

The obvious – health concerns at the forefront

Foremost on everyone’s minds is health. Can you have a gathering of people and keep them all safe? This is not a singular concern for film festivals, of course. But film festivals have unique aspects that amplify the concerns. Attendees come from all over, for a short period of time, to be grouped together in waiting lines and in darkened, close seated theaters for long periods of time. The communities that host these events have to deal with outsiders impacting the established protocols for restaurants, bars, and stores. How will the attendees and hosts cope?

But, being honest, these issues have always been a concern at film festivals. Many of the most popular festivals are held in locations that are difficult to travel to. Getting there limits who can come. Imposing a large crowd on a small community usually has the community react by requiring the event coordinators to take responsibility for keeping the invaders civil and contained. These include health and safety concerns. With our current heightening of concerns for health at all levels because of COVID-19, these issues have just shifted higher on the priority list, but, aren’t really new.

[It Depends – Health and Safety and You]

As a personal observation about Telluride Film Festival itself, I have always observed a very high attention to detail when it came to health concerns in the past. Being where it is held and how expensive every aspect of it is, this fest has had a self selection bias of attendees who, on average tend to be older and have more health-related issues than the main. The festival crew has always been ready and able to attend the needs of these more frail individuals to ensure the most possible enjoyment of the fest by every attendee.

When the pandemic hit and decisions had to be made about whether to hold events at all, the festival showrunners made the decisions that needed to be made last year, deciding that for the best interests of the attendee's health at that time, the usual state of being just wasn’t prudent and they pivoted.

Routines aren’t as routine

Returning to holding in person events as usual this year it is safe to say that the usual won’t be as usual, though it might be still familiar. From the official announcement of the lineup of films this year executive director Julie Huntsinger is quoted, “We have prepared for just about anything this year. Attending Telluride is always an adventure: the altitude, the weather, and the travel requirements to get here are not for the faint of heart. But the past two years have led us to a moment where we truly understand the phrase anything is possible, and we are ready.”

Being flexible is key. It was interesting to see how decisions were being made with careful consideration and responding to the ever-changing environment as need be as this festival was being planned. It was determined that all pass holders this year had to provide proof of vaccination prior to coming to the festival. Later, as the pandemic took a turn for the worse, the fest added the requirement that all attendees must have taken a PCR test and gotten a negative result within 72 hours of arriving in town (or the festival start for those already here.) But not only have they adjusted to the ever changing requirements of keeping people as safe as possible this year, they’ve also accommodated those necessary changes, such as providing a testing facility in town for the newly required necessities to be met with the least interruption.

I have a feeling that through self selection of those more susceptible past attendees choosing not to attend this year as well as the hyper-careful requirements of everyone being tested, this years fest may have the healthiest group of attendees they’ve ever had. And I have every confidence that the festival organizers will respond as necessary to any and all needs as required for the five days of the fest, as they seem always to do.

Festival survival depends on a few things, (always has)

The care taken by the Telluride Film Festival this year will contribute to the determination whether this fest (and all the others) will be able to continue in the future. How this fest is viewed as meeting the challenges while still maintaining their reputation as one of the finest film festivals in the world will be key to its survival.

No festival is guaranteed to survive, pandemic or not. Whether a festival thrives or withers always depends on how well they can maintain the reputation they’ve achieved in the past. The festivals that survive must maintain the highest levels of respect among those who attend the festival. That reputation sustains them through the tough time, the transitions of management and economy. If a festival starts to lose its reputation, the downfall is rapid. If a festival cannot change quick enough for the necessities that suddenly appear, the future looks bleak for them. That’s always been the case and will continue, whether those new challenges are pandemics or something else.

[IT DEPENDS: Dealing With Change]

The future, if there is one

The future is too distant to see from here. Whether, even with stellar reputations in tack, festivals will still be viable in their current form is still to be determined. Will film festivals change in the future? Inevitably. Will we still recognize them as something like what we’ve been used to from the past? It depends. I, for one, am happy they exist this way now and will enjoy them while I can.


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